Startup lessons from an Olympian: Will it make the boat go faster?

The startup day has a packed agenda of jobs to be done. Even after you’ve filtered out some of the more outlandish strategies, you’re going to be left with a number of different options that all likely have the potential to help you achieve your goal. There’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to choosing your way forward but recognise you can’t do everything.

Pareto’s Principle applies to the odds of success: your odds of winning are 80% when you achieve the 20% of the drivers that give you the most results. That is great odds. Intuitively, we know this to be true, but few people understand how far this principle extends, and it’s especially useful grafting in a startup.

So how can you apply Pareto’s Principle to focus on your North Star, and which activities will move the needle the most? You’re faced with the constant challenge of limited time and capacity. Instead of trying to do the impossible, a Paretian approach is to understand which projects, actions and activities are the most important. Perhaps 80% of customer traction derives from 20% of your marketing spend? Such statistics clearly signpost where to direct your efforts with clarity.

So, what’s your North Star? In the book Will it make the boat go faster, Ben Hunt-Davies, winner of a gold medal in the Rowing Eights at the 2000 Sydney Olympics captures the essence of a North Star focus for a startup, and the need for focus and process that is needed by a founder to make it happen.

An Olympic gold medal is a crazy thing to want, and a crazy thing to work towards. The odds – even if you are a world-class athlete – are stacked against you. I discovered that the only way to reach our crazy goal was with concrete, everyday habits – Ben Hunt-Davis

Inspired by Ben’s journey to Olympic gold, Will it make the boat go faster tells his story of the process that won him that medal. It’s a tale of focused preparation and hard work. It’s a great parable to help founders focus on what they should work on amidst the hullaballoo of their startup. It’s about daily actions to achieve set goals and then stretching them.

Elite performers don’t simply work hard, they also work differently. By knowing what matters most, they change how they perform and improve. Each day, often in small increments, they concentrate on what will make them better, and focus on what matters most for the best possible results towards attaining an ultimate goal. As a quote in the book says, Being really clear on what we wanted to achieve meant we could always figure out the way by asking ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

From Ben’s book, here is my take on the attributes and process that made him a gold medal Olympian, offering an insight to take into our daily startup life.

1. Have a goal If you want to be successful, setting clear goals with a process to achieve them is essential. The alternative is essentially hope, and I don’t see many gold medal winners relying on hope. Ben outlined how he divided his goals into four layers, each doing a different job, supporting the others:

  • The crazy layer: bold, significant, extravagant to fire our imagination; it needs to have an emotional attachment – to win an Olympic Gold;
  • The concrete layer: turn our crazy goals into something measurable. Ben’s was to row 2,000m in five minutes 18 seconds (faster than the World record);
  • The control layer: something that is within your focus to achieve – realistic targets of fitness, times to achieve distances on the rowing machines;
  • The everyday layer: methods or processes needed to achieve the layers above – x strokes per minute over x metres, and improve incrementally.

The previous ten years had been full of disappointment – 6th and 8th in two previous Olympics and 5th, 8th, 6th, 5th, 7th in World Championships. Ben had an extreme, extraordinary goal – he could only achieve it at 10.30am, 24 September 2000 and he had to nail it in less than five and a half minutes, so everything he and the team did, had to make the boat go faster.

2. Get a plan with milestones Once you have a goal you then need a plan to achieve it. Ben explains how they looked at their goal as being at the end of a cycle, aiming to peak at the Olympics, with other competitions used as markers along the way for expected levels of performances, and developing specific aspects of the rowing conditioning. They competed at other events to hit incremental improvement targets.

After you’ve found a path toward your goal, start dreaming. Dreaming can help you strengthen your desire for and belief in your goal, and it also allows you to form an emotional attachment to the goal. Ben’s dream was seeing himself standing on an Olympic podium, receiving a gold medal. This vision kept him training hard.

You should also set transparent, measurable milestones, which will stoke your motivation along the way. Knowing how far you’ve come gives you a sense of achievement and progress.  The same logic can be applied to startups. You can’t do everything you want, so plan effectively. Know what steps you can take towards your overall goal over what time periods and what resources each step will take. Hit small milestones on the way to the overall target.

3. Work smart Ben talks about how he had missed weekends, holidays, family parties etc. because of his training schedule. The real lesson is to work smart. When he trained, Ben was clear about what he was training for – stamina, sprint rowing, mental focus. The same for business, work effectively not just long hours, work on the important not just the urgent. Work towards your goals – don’t just work. Do things that make your boat go faster.

4. Measure performance All athletes measure performance. Whatever the success criteria, they constantly evaluate where they are, and whether they are on-track to achieve their goals. By evaluating performance, they can determine if they need to change their plans.

At the end of every race, the Eights debriefed to understand performance. In business you need to measure so you can analyse how to be more effective, more productive, and more profitable in the future. What gets measured gets improved. It’s an attitude of constant improvement. Stretch goals are a useful tool to push yourself.

5. Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete is, they train to improve their technique and push levels of performance. Planning to compete at the highest level, and putting in a shift, they set out their training schedules in advance to make sure they reach specific goals. Ben’s routine was the epitome of focus, using practice to hit a peak performance when it mattered most.

The last training camp at Varese, we did a 1000m sprint at world record pace. If we doubled that over 2000m in a competition, we would break the world record. We knew we could do it, it was a turning point.

The Eights bombed in the 1998 World Championships, so wanting to win the Olympic Gold two years later was an ambitious target. They took the lesson to train harder from the 1991 World Champions, Germany. They had to sit down to collect their gold medals. We came third, and we were jumping around with excitement – until we saw the GermansThey gave everything, we needed to do more.

6. Stop talking bollocks to Basil Most business folk lack the extreme mental discipline that successful athletes have, which risks being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. The choice is yours: average work, yields average results. Instead, put yourself under pressure, set the bar higher.

Ignore the naysayers. Choose your attitude and get the right mindset. The Eight’s developed bullshit filters and adopted the phrase Stop talking bollocks to Basil. At the Vienna regatta in June, they used it to repel negative thoughts and comments, which drained their energy and mindset.

7. Have a shambles sheet At the Sarnen training camp with thirteen weeks to the final, there was still much work to make the boat go faster. There was the mutual goal with mutual desire, but some things weren’t sticking. A ‘shambles sheet’ was introduced, developed by the team, with specific things discussed,  understood and bought into by everyone.

This provided transparency and honesty about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, temperaments and habits. It enabled the team to work out how to maximise their own performance as part of the team. The lesson was to stop focusing on results and start focusing on the marginal gains in the process that will get great results.

What gets you one result rather than another? What are the specific aspects that raise your performance that have an impact?  Rowing is about having rhythm and timing that is more economical and faster than your opponents, not just brute strength and stamina. It’s about the position of your hands and getting your weight on your feet. Other crews were focused on counting race wins, Ben’s team measured success in terms of how good they were getting at the process.

8. Performance is everything Ben and his colleagues had under 5.5 minutes to perform, in their final. Winning is the ultimate statement of ‘performance is everything’. The margins between success and failure are tiny, but if your goal is to win, there is no second best.  Ben’s story is a great example of keeping going and overcoming challenges, rather than letting them prevent him from reaching his goal. It’s easy to justify failure due to these barriers, but then live a life of regret….’if only….’.

9. Anything is Possible At the Olympic heat, 18 September, the team recalled The Australians hammered us…the US team was unbeaten for three years. They really had to spot opportunities to make the boat go faster and put themselves mentally and physically ahead, tell Basil to do one and not think like a victim. Know that fear isn’t a stop sign. Let go of knowing what’s gone before your goal must be your guide.

The plan didn’t work. They lost. Into the repechage they went – the heat for the losers where the winner gets to qualify for the final. They won.

10. When it matters, make it happen 1030am Sunday 24 September. This was it. The classic plan was to go off hard and fast for the first 500m, maintain the rhythm through the middle 1000m with a push here and there, and then sprint to the line for the final 500m. But that hadn’t worked in the semi-final.

They hatched a new plan the day before the final, different, bold and risky: the first 500m would be the hardest, fastest we’d ever done; the second 500m was going to be kick-started with a 35 stroke sprint, it would be harder than the first 500m; then we’d do two more 35 stroke sprints; the last 500m we’d be on our knees and still have to build to the line.

They did it.

Ben’s story – focusing on the process that gets you towards your goals – offers great insights into how to achieve startup success.

  • Have an audacious personal goal that excites you
  • Simplicity: focus on those things that make the boat go faster – no distractions
  • Control the controllables. What can you do? Forget about the rest
  • Ignore the naysayers. Stop talking bollocks to Basil!
  • Focus on the rhythm, focus on the process, not the ultimate end result.

Startups are about our mental and emotional state of mind. Success comes from finding a way to tap into your inner strength, your core values, your passion and your attitude. It’s what you’ll need to put one foot in front of another, and to keep going. How will you make your boat go faster?

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